Students Choosing Their Own Project Topics and Finding Resources for Contextualization

Projects that allow students to choose their own topic are powerful. They allow students to discover new learning and challenge the official textbook narrative. Furthermore, students of color, of low-economic status, students with gender fluid identities, and female students do not often find narratives in a traditional textbook or curriculum that connect with them. Allowing students to choose their own topics will help them feel like their perspectives fit with American society.

When allowing students to choose their own topics, a major hurdle is helping them find relevant historical events, people, issues, and ideas. Often times, it feels like there is too much history to go through, therefore students end up choosing topics that sound safe and familiar. For example, I have done the National History Day competition for several years, and each year I see many of the same topics (seriously, there are too many Salem Witch Trials and KKK projects). If students are going to choose new and fresh topics, they first need to explore their strengths, beliefs, ideas, and perspectives; I wrote an article about this under Benefits To A Social Studies Curriculum: Discovering Students’ Personalities, Strengths, Weaknesses, and Future Goals.

The article "Benefits To A Social Studies Curriculum" has resources to help students find their identities.
This students was interested in becoming a mechanic or engineer. He studied the steam powered engine and even created his own engine as an example.

Students need to move through a lot of history before they choose their topic in order to see what is available to them. Once students see a lot of history and know what they are interested in, they will be able to combine their interests with a unique topic in history. For example, a student might be interested in their African American heritage and their future ambition to be a medical practitioner. A combination of this interest and future goal could result in a study about black nurses during the American Civil War. Such a topic is common when students are allowed to pursue their interests and learn about themselves.

I have created a list of ideas and resources that can help students and teachers move through a large volume of history, which will give students the opportunity to choose topics that matter to them. When doing National History Day, I will implement these methods throughout the first six weeks of my classroom.

Textbook and Youtube

All states have social studies standards and it is the legal obligation of educators to teach them. When teaching 8th grade U.S. History, I taught between the time periods of the American Revolution to Reconstruction. I would teach before and after this state mandated timeline to supplement areas that I thought needed to be addressed, such as Native American civilizations before European contact; but I ensured that my teaching focused on the time period that my standards had laid out. 

When students selected their History Day projects, they had to choose a topic that fit between American Revolution and Reconstruction. I had them go through the school textbook and a video list so they could see several topics quickly. You can find the materials for both lists at Reading through the classroom history book and Watch videos for topics

Social Studies Professionals Day

I organized a day where professionals in my community came to speak with students about how analysis and social studies affected their job. Also, community members told students about topics and historical moments that occurred in our area. Students were encouraged to add these local histories to their list of potential topics. Some community members even brought artifacts to help encourage students to work with local history. I had to reach out to individuals and organizations myself, but there are many out there, such as: libraries, newspapers, museums, archives, historical societies, organizations for women, racial/ethnic organizations, preservation businesses and churches. You can also reach out to your school staff and parents to see if they know of historical passionate people.

Professionals from the community who helped students with their project ideas.

Library Partnerships/Mandatory Reading

Check out video to see how students can get help from libraries.

The school’s library and local library can provide books, magazines, and other texts. My local library allowed me to check out over one-hundred books to bring to the school; students used these books to explore topics that interested them. A field trip could be organized to bring students to the library where they can learn more about research practices. A school librarian will also have access to WorldCat and other book finding software; this will help students acquire books that are not readily accessible.

Google Searches for Secondary Sources

The internet is a powerful place and many students are unsure of how to use it. Teaching students proper search etiquette can help lead them to websites that will contain scholarly information and primary sources. The video to the right shows a lecture that reviews how to find sources in Google.

Youtube Searches for Secondary Sources

Similar to internet searching, students need to learn how to use a video hosting platform like Youtube properly. There are thousands of videos about history that students can use to contextualize their selected topic. Also, if students are unable to find a video on their topic, they could make a documentary to fill that gap. Students may be motivated to create something that future students can use.

Using Wikipedia

Wikipedia has for too long been ousted as a place students should never go. Instead, teachers need to clarify that Wikipedia should not be cited as a source, but can be influential in discovering more information about a topic. Many Wikipedia pages cannot be edited by the general public, unlike what many teachers state, and have a wealth of information that students can use.

Encourage Use of At Home Resources

Parents, guardians, and family members are great resources for telling students about their local and family history. Many families have members who are interested in history, or at the very least, someone has great stories that can encourage selection of a topic that has meaning to a student.

Classroom Library

All social studies teachers should work on building a classroom library. Teachers can bring the materials they read themselves and hunt for books when they get a chance. A teacher’s budget does often get stretched, but there are plenty of cheap alternatives for buying books. I have found hundreds of affordable books at thrift stores, used book sales, the clearance rack of bookstores, estate sales, and asking my community, family, friends, and members of my school to give me history books. There are ways out there; be creative!

One-to-one meetings

A teacher in the classroom is an invaluable resource. The teacher possesses the knowledge, methodology, and the experience to help students choose a topic. With total student counts that go into the one-hundreds, teachers can find it difficult to perform one-on-one meetings with students. I encourage teachers to try, despite the difficulty. These meetings do not need to be long. I will do meetings with students that last 1-2 minutes. I will find students during my prep period, or during their study hall. I will ask students questions during passing time. While students are working on a primary source analysis in my classroom, I will walk around and converse with students. There are many ways you can have these conversations with students and help guide them towards a topic that truly fits what they want to do.

Even if they look at you funny, talk with your students.

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